Excerpted from WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HEAVEN?
It is an understatement to say that the winds of change are blowing at gale force through the hallowed halls of tradition. Scientific discovery is advancing in quantum leaps, computer technology is literally exploding, and...communications networks are bringing this rapidly expanding knowledge to the world with lightning speed. The inevitable result is a revolution in every field from physics to medicine and from economics to politics. That we currently face dramatic and accelerating worldwide change beyond present comprehension is sensed by almost every person who gives any heed to the contemporary scene. Nor is it possible to seriously doubt the connection between the quickening pace of high-tech's sensuous, self-centered living, and plummeting public morals.
Needless to say, the church has not remained untouched by these currents of upheaval and transformation. Influenced by the world as never before through the subtleties and persuasive power of modern media, Christians are being adversely affected in numerous and deceptive ways. The faith of many, particularly the youth, is being devastated by the challenge of "scientific" or "progressive" ideas which also undermine biblical standards of morality....
[As one symptom of "changing hope"] there are many Christians today (and their number is growing rapidly) who view the hope of an imminent rapture as the negative product of a defeatist theology. They sincerely believe that the expectation of being taken home to heaven at any moment undermines the "victory" they are convinced could be won by the church if Christians would only catch the vision of taking over the world and would unite to fulfill it.
On the contrary, there is a much more exciting and worthwhile hope for those who believe in the rapture. We will return with Christ from heaven in transformed bodies to reign over this earth with Him. That hope involves a truly new world order far superior to anything we could establish in these mortal bodies and without His physical presence on earth. Such a vision of the future helps us to realize that we are not part of this old world order and to make a clear break with it even now.
The ground is being laid for a major confrontation between those who long to leave this earth for heaven in the rapture, and others equally sincere who believe it is the Christian's duty to establish the kingdom upon this earth and that only when this has been accomplished by the church in His absence will our Lord at last return....
Of course, there have always been diverse views of the Second Coming. The amillennial position, generally held by Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Catholics (among others), sees history moving on for many thousands of years with Christ finally winding things up at some indefinite time in the future and with prophecy having little if anything to say that would give us any hint of timing or events along the way. Similarly, the postmillennial view suggests that we are already in the millennium (which is not a literal thousand years but could be hundreds of thousands), that the church is gradually taking over the world and will eventually establish the kingdom in Christ's absence, after which He will return for the final judgment. While there is a general belief in the rapture, postmillennialism puts that event so far in the future that it has no practical motivating effect in one's life.
In the early 1970s the rapture was the most-talked-about topic in the church. Lindsey had captured the attention and imagination of his generation. Pastors preached about heaven and Christians eagerly anticipated being caught up at any moment to meet their Lord in the air. Even the secular world became familiar with the concept. There were movies, such as The Omen, about the end times. Radio and television mentioned the Second Coming frequently, and cartoons and bumper stickers also took up the theme. One of the latter solemnly warned: "I'm leaving in the rapture, ride at your own risk!"
All of that has changed. The bumper stickers have worn off, the movies have lost their appeal, and the sermons have gone on to currently popular themes. The subtitle of a recent article in Moody reflects present sentiment: "Hal Lindsey was premature. The earth is great, but it's too early to call it late."
Most Christians no longer know what they believe about prophecy and now realize that their previously held opinions must be given an honest and careful review. Many who were once excited about the prospects of being caught up to heaven at any moment have become confused and disillusioned by the apparent failure of a generally accepted biblical interpretation they once relied upon. Those who believed in the rapture because it was popular are, of course, abandoning it now that it has become unpopular. They never had a good reason for what they believed based upon their own carefully weighed convictions. It is sad that so few Christians know the Bible for themselves....
The church is now ripe for the developing views of history and prophecy that either downplay or eliminate the rapture and put the emphasis upon "Christianizing" (in contrast to "converting") the world. A new genre of books espousing the idea that "victory in Christ" means a Christian takeover of this world is coming off the presses and selling well. Such ideas are being successfully taken into mainstream evangelical churches by [groups] denigrating...the rapture."
Today, the once-bright hope of the church being taken home to heaven by Christ at any moment has become the butt of crude jokes and a common subject of ridicule or scorn even among many Christians. The initial ad for the Reconstructionist Biblical Blueprints book series derisively called the rapture "God's helicopter escape." Earl Paulk, founding pastor of the 10,000-member Chapel Hill Harvester Church near Atlanta, and a popular Christian television teacher, calls the rapture "The Great Escape Theory."
Being taken to heaven in the rapture has been to a large extent replaced by the rapidly growing new hope that the church is destined to take over the world and establish the kingdom of God. The focus has turned from winning souls for citizenship in heaven to political and social action aimed at cleaning up society. Scarcely a sermon is being preached about the world to come. Attention is focused instead upon achieving success in this one. If we have a big enough march on Washington and vote in enough of our candidates, then we can make this world a beautiful, safe, moral, and satisfying "Christian" place for our grandchildren. This is a very enticing scenario. George Grant's appeal sounds logical and extremely persuasive:
I became very disenchanted over time with the pessimistic mentality that the purpose of world history is to back the church into the corner and finally at the last second, right before the moment of absolute destruction, God snatches us into the heavenly realms and says: "Well, you lost the world, you lost your culture, you lost your children, you lost the schools, you lost all the unborn babies, you lost South Africa, you lost everything. Well done, my good and faithful servants." I just couldn't buy that. Reconstructionists say that's not the only view on how the church is to operate in the world.
The expectancy of the Lord's soon return which was so evident in the 1970s...has all but vanished from the church.... There has developed a surprising and growing antagonism against eagerly watching and waiting for Christ's return, which surely was the attitude of the early church. The pendulum is swinging to an outright rejection of not only the pretrib but also the premillennium rapture....
The trend...has accelerated. We could cite the current struggle going on in the Southern Baptist Church as one example. It is the largest Protestant denomination, but is presently losing members at a surprising and growing rate to independent churches that deny the rapture, deny any place for national Israel in prophecy, and believe that an elite group of "overcomers" will soon manifest immortality in their bodies without the resurrection or the Second Coming, and take over the world for Christ. Only then will Christ return. Not to take His bride home to heaven as the Bible clearly teaches, however, but to reign over the kingdom that has been established by her for Him here on this earth. One of the leaders in this movement writes:
"You can study books about going to heaven in a so-called 'rapture' if that turns you on. We want to study the Bible to learn to live and to love and to bring heaven to earth."
Is this issue even worth discussing? After all, what does it matter when Christ comes or when or how the kingdom is established? Is eschatological debate of any significance? A partial answer would lie in the fact that "last days" prophecy is a subject that takes up about one-fourth of the Bible. How could we dare to suggest that the Holy Spirit would give such importance to something which, in the final analysis, really doesn't matter? Based only upon the amount of attention given to it in the Bible, when and how and why Christ returns must be of great importance both to God and to us. We need to seek to understand why.
One reason for the significance of this issue should be quite obvious. Paul tells us that Christ is going to catch His bride away from this earth to meet Him in the air-"and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:17). Consequently, those who expect to meet Christ with their feet still planted on earth—a "Christ" who has arrived to take over the kingdom they have established in His name—will have been badly deceived. In fact, they could have been working to build the earthly kingdom for the Antichrist. Yet this teaching that we must take over the world and set up the kingdom for Christ has become the fastest-growing movement within the church today.
One of the key doctrines of this movement is the claim that the church is now Israel, heir to all of her promises, and that national Israel has been cut off from God and has no further place in the prophetic scheme. This new focus on an earthly inheritance for the church has further turned the hope of being taken to heaven in the rapture into an object of ridicule. It has also produced a drastic change in attitude and a serious reduction in the evangelical church's traditional support of Israel, an about-face which is being viewed with alarm by that tiny nation....
Speaking at Edmond near Oklahoma City on April 11,1988, Rick Godwin, a long-time associate of James Robison and popular speaker on Christian media, delivered the type of anti-Israel rhetoric that is becoming so typical in charismatic circles: "They [national Israel] are not chosen, they are cursed! They are not blessed, they are cursed!... The church—that's the Israel of God, not that garlic one over on the Mediterranean Sea!" Earl Paulk's criticism of national Israel and those who look favorably upon her includes the ultimate accusation:
The hour has come for us to know...that the spirit of the antichrist is now at work in the world...[through] so-called Holy Spirit-filled teachers who say, "If you bless national Israel, God will bless you." Not only is this blatantly deceptive, it is not part of the new covenant at all!
Currents of change are sweeping through the world and the church. In the crucial days ahead, the evangelical church could well suffer a division over the rapture and the related issue of Israel comparable to that experienced by the Catholic Church as a result of the Reformation in the 1500s. Nor would it be surprising if, in the cause of "unity," the larger faction in Protestantism moved much closer to ecumenical union with Catholicism, which has been traditionally antisemitic and discarded the rapture about 1600 years ago. Some of the reasons why this could happen, and the likely consequences, should become clear in the following pages....
We must beware that in our zeal to "change the world for Christ" we do not become so wedded to an ongoing earthly process stretching into the indeterminate future that we lose our vision of heaven. We cannot be truly faithful to the totality of what Scripture says unless we are sufficiently disengaged from this world to be ready to leave it behind at a moment's notice.
There is cause to be concerned that...kingdom/dominion advocates could be fostering a false conception of our earthly ministry—a conception which we must guard against lest we subtly fall into...[the] mistaken notion that mortal man can accomplish what only immortal Man, our risen Lord, and we as immortal resurrected beings with Him, can perform. We dare not settle for anything less than the fullness of what Christ has promised! The glory that He offers is light-years beyond the...agenda of Christianizing and taking over this present world in these bodies of weakness and corruption....
The joy and glory He has planned and in which He desires that we participate—and the prospect of being caught up at any moment to see this hope realized—are more than enough to excite and inspire and motivate us to victorious living and witnessing.... We dare not, however, in the name of unity and the avoidance of controversy, abandon the hope given to us in [the] Scriptures (See 1 Cor:15:51-53, 1 Thes:4:16-18).